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The Written World

By: Daniel Miller
April 19, 2019

“Sometimes I try to imagine a world without literature…of what would be lost if literature had never existed,” writes Martin Puchner, at the beginning of The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History and Civilization, his informative but shallow history of global literature. Reading the book’s cheerfully apocalyptic blurb—“from Homer to Harry Potter—including the Tale of Genji, Don Quixote, the Communist Manifesto and more”—it’s difficult to suppress the thought that something has gone very badly wrong.

Writing is a recent innovation. Anatomically modern humans have existed for between 30,000 and 50,000 years; the oldest surviving written elements of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the cuneiform ur-myth of Man’s domestication, date from the second millennium BC, and the oldest surviving complete text dates from between 1200 and 1500 BC. A thousand years later, Alexander, en route to India, introduced the Greek alphabet to Asia, facilitating a more rapid and efficient method of communication across the arteries of the Near East. Rome rose from the strategic crucible of her seven hills (“In those days there was but slight and scanty use of writing,” notes Livy, “the sole trustworthy guardian of the memory of past events…”) then sublimated into the Roman Catholic Church. Printing and paper developed in China, and made their way to Europe along the Silk Road through Baghdad. Gutenburg established a business printing indulgences; Martin Luther, the prophet of the printing press, turned the new technology against the Vatican. Goethe traveled to Sicily, Marx unleashed his apprentice; finally, we reach post-colonial literature, and today’s proliferation of writing—visible everywhere, on screens, on clothes, and in our nightmares.

Why did this happen? Puchner, a Harvard English professor, has an ear for subtle questions, coiled into cryptic phrases, and enigmatically agential propositions. “Writing needed to cut its ties with the world of objects and meaning,” he remarks of the Greek alphabet. “Like an organism seeking to replicate itself,” he writes of Chinese printing, “the Diamond Sutra was spawning versions of itself.” Every chapter of this book presents insightful facts and telling details, from the opening set-piece of a “battle of the books” in outer space between an American Genesis and a Soviet Marxism to informative encapsulations of the courtly romance The Tale of Genji as an elegant geometry of paper screens and subtle gestures, and Arabian Nights as an allegory of a sensuously variegated market.

Nonetheless The Written World is circumscribed, and ultimately superficial. Stranded between airport-friendly affability and the intellectual restrictions of contemporary academia Puchner, or his editor, sacrifices urgency and depth to the mildly diverting, on the altar of the existentially unproblematic. It is a truism to state, repeatedly, that humanity is occupied by myths and stories; the problem is what myths occupy us now, and how are they indenturing our thoughts? Writing ex cathedra from within the world progressive system, Puchner is not at liberty to say. But he seems conscious something’s missing.

“I sometimes think about my own profession, the study of literature, as an offshoot of these official interpreters, although our authority is much weakened,” Puchner writes of his rabbinical and priestly predecessors. But is the power of scribal authority, in its vicarious remediation, and derivative abstraction, not precisely weakness? As Walter Ong observed, ancient man acquired knowledge through experience, not study; today, the educational agenda, with its safe spaces and trigger warnings, appears intent upon experience’s obliteration. It’s somehow unsurprising to discover that Harvard’s Annenberg Hall is the model of the Great Hall at Hogwarts, given the similitude of influence exercised by these theurgic institutions over the captive imagination of the world.

Puchner repeatedly admits to an unease: “As I was exploring the story of literature, I became restless. It felt strange to think about the way that literature had shaped our history and the history of our planet while sitting at my desk. I needed to go to places where great texts and inventions had originated.” But his trek across the planet seems to leave him unsatisfied. Like Freud at the Parthenon, Puchner reports a sense of disappointment at the size of Troy. In St. Lucia, Derek Walcott, the “Homer of the Caribbean,” is described as “old, hunched-over, small.” Puchner drives to Dauphin, location of an early Walcott play, down a road “being paid for by the European Union” and meets a fisherman in a Selecâo shirt. He goes to a bar and drinks Piton, the St. Lucian beer. “Everyone else was drinking Heineken: We were trying to be local, while they were trying to be cosmopolitan.” Epitaph for global man.

All this was perhaps inevitable. What else is writing but a form of dislocation, a technique for detaching stories from traditions, and replacing place with virtuality and imperial abstractions? First the sign reflects reality, then it perverts reality, then it masks reality, and then it masks the fact that there is nothing left of what was once known as reality but signs taken for wonders, like an index of a ransacked archive. “Indian priests,” Puchner remarks, “refused to write down sacred stories for fear of losing control over them.” Perhaps the fear wasn’t losing control of the stories, but losing touch with the invisible reality they indexed. Replication is a profanation which generates proliferation, which leads to dissipation. Thus Plato took care to note the setting of each of his dialogues, placing the Phaedrus, with its famous Cassandra-like warning that writing would mean people would no longer bother to remember things, and their ability to think would deteriorate, beneath a sycamore tree outside Athens where the wind god Borealis, Bovary-like, had once abducted a young woman.”

At the conclusion of Puchner’s narrative is the triumph of “world literature” (the phrase originally was Goethe’s) out of the same Faustian spirit (a spirit that “always negates” one could say) that produced Heidegger’s “world picture” and Marx’s world market, and the Wizard World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. As Puchner tells it, sotto voce, the story of the story is a kind of merging between three originally distinct literatures belonging respectively to the Royal, the priestly, and the mercantile, to the detriment of all.

“Luther had begun the age of popular polemic, an age in which a single writer could publish under his own name, an age in which success would be measured by the size of print runs and the number of reprints,” Puchner writes. Rene Guénon described this same transformation as the arrival of a metaphysical “regime of quantity” and pointed out that “in a traditional civilization it almost inconceivable that a man should claim an idea as his own, and in any case, were he to do he would thereby deprive it of all credit and authority, reducing it to the level of a meaningless fantasy: if an idea is true it belongs equally to all who are capable of understanding it, if it is false, there is no credit for having invented it.”

But the age of the author is probably also now passing away, or vanishing like a figure drawn on the sand, as the Gutenberg galaxy implodes into a homogenous entertainment category, spread out across international literary festivals and multinational publishers. “Literature,” Goethe wrote, "is a fragment of fragments; only the smallest proportion of what took place and what was said was written down, while only the smallest proportion of what was written down has survived.” In a world information system in which every stroke of a key is recorded, it is no longer words, but their absence, which is increasingly scarce. Electronic communication, hypertext, artificial intelligence and Amazon algorithms servicing the lowest common denominator supersede the literature of books and print; to paraphrase William Burroughs, there will be no more Goethes, no more Homers: the writers of this world are writers by accident, at the mercy of marketing departments telling them which buttons to push.